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Buy a Brick and Lay the Foundation for a School

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
School building charity renovated school in Tehran. September 2017. (IRNA)

Buy a Brick and Lay the Foundation for a School. That’s a scheme being promoted in Iran to promote charity school building. Projects currently under way consist of constructing, renovating or refitting schools.

Volunteer and charity work is a common human trait, but imagine channeling any amount of resources towards school-building. It would be a huge project which entails the accumulation of lots of small sums and effort. In Iran school-building and donating to society is a tradition, which could certainly do with a little back-up from the law.

The current Iranian calendar year, beginning March the 21st, saw a total budget of 48 trillion rials earmarked for school renovation nationwide. That’s over a billion dollars at the official exchange rate of 42.000 rials to the dollar, signifying a 65 per cent increase year on year.

The 1.1 billion dollar budget is a difficult sum to obtain, but not so difficult to spend, with the Rial devalued so badly, which is one of the main reasons the organization for renovation, development, and equipment of schools of Iran cannot work alone.

Private donors fill the gap

Siavash Zarazvand is a Charity School Builder who lives abroad yet feels compelled to contribute to this worthy cause in Iran.

His retail business is a far cry from the stereotypical profession of a school building man of charity.

The 5th school I built myself has this problem. The roof of the school was collapsing, making it impossible for students to study, so it was closed. I tried hard to find a volunteer but no one cooperated.

I don’t want to break down the reason for it. But my hands are tied over such a matter. But I was determined to do that. I witnessed many things in the school because it was partly open and kids were coming in to study.

The building was derelict and the roof was about to collapse any second. That was why I made the decision, and finally, the Renovation Organization cooperated with me, and thank God, we finished the school a few days ago.

Siavash Zarazvand, Charity School Builder

Educational spaces at risk of destruction

Our educational spaces would be totally destroyed if it weren’t for members of the charity. We had schools working in 4 shifts. Back at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution, there were schools that worked at 3 shifts. We had such schools in the southern parts of Tehran that changed shifts every other week. But thank God, charity members came to our help and built 30% to 35% of the schools.

Nemat Baniadam, Charity School Association of Iran

Iran has 450 school-building charities, and 650.000 donors inside the country and 1000 outside.  These benefactors have constructed 30 percent of the country’s schools.

We currently have about 30,000 charity school-building members identified in the country. They are registered. About 20,000 of whom are male benefactors, and 5,000 others female. There are also about 5,000 companies and legal entities that are active in the field of school construction. Up to 30% of our country's schools are built with the participation of donors. Very few countries in the world have this share of benefactors’ participation in the construction and development of educational spaces.

Mohammad Reza Ghorbani, CEO, Charity School Association of Iran

President Hassan Rouhani himself officially inaugurated some 1,550 educational, training, and welfare projects across the country in November 2020 via video conferencing.

Basically, governments are tasked with policy-making. Governments are concerned with where we should build schools, where the population needs schools.

If we build schools somewhere that doesn’t have enough students, it shows the policy has been wrong. The School-Building Charity Association as a grassroots organization happens to play this very role.

In other words, in addition to paying attention to the location of schools, we take into account how the schools are constructed, we make sure the intention of the benefactors is being observed, we also ensure that the land use does not change afterward.

We’re basically standing beside the benefactors and monitoring what the government does.

Mohammad Reza Ghorbani, CEO, Charity School Association of Iran

The projects included 1,422 educational places with 8,051 classrooms, 124 training centers, and 4 welfare centers, measuring a total of 1.1 million square meters. But why this urge to build schools when a strained economy makes more soup-houses sound like the best idea as a social service?

Unfortunately, the prisons are filled with people who lack education. By building one school, we can close down at least one prison. That’s how I look at it, I may be wrong. But taking action and building schools is much better than not doing anything and putting the building off for months. We need to build it as long as we have the opportunity. Time flies. We can’t sit idly by for months. If we have reached the decision, we need to enact it. If we haven’t decided what course of action to take, we need to make that decision fast.

Siavash Zarazvand, Charity School Builder

The importance of schooling means zooming in on the remotest parts of a vast country of green plains, harsh mountains and dry deserts.

There are over 1.5 million nomads in Iran today, divided by name, united by blood and nationality, comprising tribes such as the Bakhtiyaris (Bactrians, basically Lurs), and the Kurds.

There are currently 210,000 nomadic students studying in 14,000 classrooms across the country, and their numbers increased by 10 percent in a year, beginning March 2019.

Mr. Bani Aadam tells of his passion for school building and how he paired up with someone of his faith to act on his passion; the belief in finishing what you’ve begun.

Their latest project was work on Tehran’s underprivileged district 22, which began 7-8 months ago. Land prices have gone through the roof. But it is the ministry of education that tends to provide the land for school building projects.

The first school I built was located somewhere called Alart, which was a village in the vicinity of Robat Karim. I was so happy with what I had done that I immediately started making the second, third, and fourth. I sold my lands and built schools.

In about 20 years, the charity community built 30-35 percent of the schools in the entire country. Over the past 6-7 months, we have planned a biennial program. This planning has helped us maintain a very positive interaction with municipalities, city councils, the Ministry of Education, and the Renovation Organization.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and oppressive sanctions, we have almost 55 schools that are about to open. During the next 7 months, the number is likely to rise to 100.

Nemat Baniadam, Charity School Association of Iran

Some donors reported that because of ownership disputes they’d experienced-- disputes that could endanger schools-- they are now incredibly careful with using halal lands (legally and morally permissible lands).

The biggest problem we face in Tehran is the scarcity of land. If the lands are available, we can seek the help of the benefactors. We have great donors.

We have benefactors like Mr. Ebrahimi, God bless him, who’s built 180 schools, Mr. Ghalamchi with 170 schools, Mr. DavarPanah with 300 schools. These figures are on a national scale, and not specifically in Tehran province.

Dr. KhosrowShahi, may God rest his soul, built 428 schools, and we weren’t even allowed to name him. I met him multiple times in Vancouver. He wouldn’t allow us to mention his name. He asked us to wait until after his death to mention his name.

Nemat Baniadam, Charity School Association of Iran

Ms Ghasemipour MP for Kordestan, Sanandaj, gives her views

Speaking of the scarcity of lands, I need to explain that the Ministry of Education has some lands.

Either some honorable people dedicate their lands in our beloved country and give it to the ministry, or the municipalities set them off with the ministry.

The lands are given to benefactors. Because the charity members have run into problems in the past, they insist that the lands must be in the name of the Education Ministry. Otherwise, they won’t do any construction on the lands.

Shiva Ghasemipour, MP, Education Committee

Education for all, including illegal immigrants

Education for all has also meant, as results of a decree by the Leader in May 2015, education for the children of illegal immigrants.

Currently some 110,000 illegal Afghan national students are studying in Iran.

All in all 88 percent of the refugees’ children are studying in Iranian schools, and by next school year beginning Sep the 23rd, that rate should increase to 90 percent in elementary schools.

The Ministry of Education has allocated 10 trillion rials (nearly $240 million) for refugees’ education. This is while international donations constitute only 2-2.5 percent of this amount. A gap this great has left the Ministry facing major problems.

We have a good position in the field of construction. In 2017, our country won the Sasakawa International Award for the safety of educational spaces. Sasakawa is an international award given to only two countries every year. And it was the first time that this award was given to the Iranian ambassador in Mexico. Iran won first place in strengthening educational spaces.

Mohammad Reza Ghorbani, CEO, Charity School Association of Iran

Each year, students in Iran start the school year on September 23, after the three-month summer holidays. But with the coronavirus pandemic at large this year, all educational centers in the country have been closed since late February 2020, and education was conducted in three forms: in-person, virtual, and television-based.

Building schools on the general agenda of parliament

I have concentrated on this issue since I’ve been a member because I am an educator myself. I’ve had a meeting with the esteemed head of the Renovation Organization. He agreed to a special condition for me after I explained the situation in the region. The government usually engages with the benefactors in building schools and pays 50-percent of the costs. But the head of the Renovation Organization agreed to a 70-30 scenario, meaning the government would be responsible for 70-percent and the donors, 30 percent. That’s because the students are in a very bad situation there. Based on per capita educational space and standards that exist in the country, I think there’s half a meter of space for every student there.

Shiva Ghasemipour, MP, Education Committee

The national budget bill for the next [Iranian calendar] year of March 2021-March 2022, has foreseen a 21-percent rise for the renovation and retrofitting of schools.

Over the past four years, the number of old classrooms in need of reconstruction and retrofitting has been reduced from 30 percent to 19.5 percent. Capital City Tehran has the highest number of old schools, but donors tend to donate in their own local hometowns or to deprived areas.

There are some 107,000 schools nationwide with 530,000 classes, 160,000 of which are dilapidated and dangerous. That means 30 percent of the schools nationwide don’t meet safety standards.

We give priority to esteemed benefactors who work hard to build schools in deprived regions. Because our main objective is educational equality and justice, students in deprived regions also have the right to use the same educational facilities and schools available elsewhere in our beloved Iran. So we need to start from there.

The donors themselves want to spend their money somewhere that those who’re really in need can benefit. Kordestan Province is one of those places, especially where my constituency is at.

Because it’s an immigrant-friendly city, there are 44-thousand students there. The government doesn’t have enough facilities to dedicate to the students. So we need to seek help from charity members.

Shiva Ghasemipour, MP, Education Committee

If you examine the region itself, Tehran has more students compared to other cities. It’s true that some rural areas lack schools altogether. But Tehran has a lower per capita space for every student. That’s why Tehran needs much more schools than elsewhere.

Siavash Zarazvand, Charity School Builder

It goes without saying, with school-building this high up on Iran’s cultural agenda, that after the recent floods people wasted no time turning their eyes to the situation children had found themselves in. Consequently, benefactors donated $48m to rebuild flood-hit schools, in 2019.

The devastating floods hit 28 of Iran’s 31 provinces, leaving some 1,500 schools damaged, 200 of which were razed to the ground.

In the year from March 2018 to 2019, more than half of school classes were built by benefactors, and within a 10-year period the number of dilapidated schools dropped from two thirds to one third.

One of the characteristics of the Iranian nation is our love for knowledge and culture. This isn’t a simple claim, history has clearly shown that. For example, the development of educational spaces in our country dates back to at least 1000 years ago. If we specifically consider schools and special spaces where education takes place, you can look at Rabe-e Rashidi 800 years ago, for example. Why is Rabe-e Rashidi so famous? Rabe-e Rashidi was a complex comprising 4 sections. According to available data, it housed 5-thousand students from around the world 800 years ago. Iranians have always been pioneers in the field of science and knowledge. Mirza Taghi Khan Amirkabir built Darulfunun 160 years ago. That’s another educational space built by a benevolent man.

Mohammad Reza Ghorbani, CEO, Charity School Association of Iran

Some 2,500 public schools are operational in Tehran and every year 10 of them are added to a long list of dilapidated ones, while only 3 to 4 new schools are established annually.

Since 2006 some 50 percent of the schools nationwide have been reconstructed and the rest are waiting for budget allocation to be renovated.

Tehran has been estimated to need roughly $250 million to re-build ramshackle schools and another $110 million to make them earthquake resistant.

Education means so much to Iranian society, that even people with professions far from anything academic involve themselves in charity school-building. Mostly, people with no other academic involvement actually!  Seeing the different uses their educational donations have been put into, and what it has produced, is touching.

Donars recall that the late Imam Khomeini himself gave 500 million rials at the time of the Iran-Iraq war, which was divided between schools.

If you make an assessment, the culture of education and research has been growing since the Islamic Revolution. That is, for example, our students who win awards in the field of nano-technology are mostly educated in less-advantaged areas of the cities. We’re now the world’s sixth-leading country in the field of nanotechnology. This shows that if the educational spaces are prepared for the use of our dear students, they enthusiastically use them to realize their great mission to achieve their high cultural and educational goals.

Nemat Baniadam, Charity School Association of Iran

But even with 110.000 schools and 550.000 classrooms in the country, challenges remain. The country has 14 million school kids, with 5 square-meters of school space per kid. Classrooms of 32 students on average need to be reduced to 24 students.

If you plan to become a donor, you should know donors can supervise school management.

Donor responsibilities

If someone wants to join the School-builder charity association, they can contact the association or the Renovation Organization by doing a simple internet search.

They provide their primary information including how much they’re willing to spend and what they want to do. They can either come to Iran themselves, or choose a relative, friend, or an acquaintance to take care of their work as their representative.

It’s interesting to know that the latter method has become more frequently used recently. It wasn’t as easy in the past.

Now, the benefactors know people who’re well aware of the regulations and know what to do and how to build schools.

Siavash Zarazvand, Charity School Builder

Donation methods

The Charity Schools Association of Iran is the best place to raise this money. Most donors, for example, want to write a check in our name, but we do not accept it and tell them to deposit it in the account of the assembly.

Even if the donors pay money to the Renovation Organization, the body transfers the sums to the association. The association has a lot of money and is decisive.

The association sometimes completes semi-finished school projects, because people have more trust in it than the other organizations.

Nemat Baniadam,  Charity School Association of Iran

While in the 1970s the enrollment rate of the boys and girls in primary education was 70 percent, this currently exceeds 98 percent.

There are elementary schools in almost all areas across the country, and in some regions there are elementary schools with just one student.

We have three historical periods in school construction in Iran. One was Darulfunun. Another period goes back to the time of Roshdieh and Baghcheban, who founded schools for deaf students. The third one is the modern era. We’re looking for constructing schools in the 15th century that would meet all educational needs of students while being a safe and comfortable environment that can fully withstand natural disasters.

Mohammad Reza Ghorbani, CEO, Charity School Association of Iran

Well Iran has long had a strong educational base, and it has built on that. Talking of children in schools, it is not to say there are no out-of-school children, but numbers of out-of-school kids of primary school age, have dwindled.

It is noteworthy that the number of boys and girls in primary education is almost equal in Iran.

Our noble benefactors work really hard and make sacrifices. This is because they realized that a transcendent society needs an educational environment that promotes culture. We are thankful to God that now Iran is rich in culture.

Members from UNESCO visited Iran at the invitation of the Renovation Organization. We took them for a tour of the schools built by donors. It was totally unbelievable for them.

They said how is it possible for a person to donate such astronomical amounts to build a school. When we told them that someone holds a record of building 428 schools, they couldn’t believe it.

Most of the members told us you should win the Nobel Peace Prize. They said you have to become a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nemat Baniadam, Charity School Association of Iran

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